August, Science, and the Diaspora: India's 'Golden Era' of Institution Building

India is undoubtedly in the midst of a virtuous cycle of economic growth combined with highly skilled talent.

6 min read

(This is part four of a four-part 'August' series that revisits significant historical events or policies and how the lessons learned from them continue to be of relevance in present-day politics and society. Read part one here, part two here, and part three here.)

The year 1951 was a momentous one for the new Republic called India in which decisions taken then reverberate even now. At the moment, the Supreme Court is hearing challenges to the abrogation of Article 370 on a daily basis. Article 370 was inserted into the Constitution as a temporary provision in 1951.

This decision triggered the birth of Bhartiya Jan Sangh, now the BJP. The Supreme Court routinely hears matters related to restrictions of free speech and spends quite a bit of time giving bail or giving protection from arrest to various sorts of people.

The First Amendment which put a series of restrictions on free speech was passed in 1951. The band “new” Somnath Temple was thrown open to devotees in 1951. Of course, the first Lok Sabha and Assembly elections started in 1951. Dr. B R Ambedkar resigned from the Union Cabinet in 1951.

There was much more that happened in 1951.


IITs, IIMs, the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre

Amidst all this, India took a small, yet giant, leap of faith by establishing the first Indian Institute of Technology at Kharagpur in West Bengal in August 1951. The plan to set up high-quality educational institutions dealing with engineering & technical education was first mooted in the 1940s.

As India approached independence, it was decided to set up two such institutions on a priority basis in two industrial hubs and corners of India: the east and the west.

Since “Bengal” was then considered the leading industrial hub of India, the first such centre was initially set up in Calcutta (now Kolkata) before the new campus was inaugurated at Kharagpur by India’s first education minister Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad. Seven years after that, the second industrial hub Bombay (now Mumbai) became home to the second IIT in 1958.

Look at where the two “hubs” stand today in comparison.

The contemporary history of Calcutta & Bombay (or West Bengal and Maharashtra) tells us a lot about the long-term impact politics & ideology can have on a state, a country, and an economy. The authors need not repeat the political and economic trajectory of the two “industrial hubs” of British India since the 1950s.

Coming back to IIT Kharagpur, Maulana Azad had a lot to say about the future of science and technology in newly independent India. According to him, the goal was to set up a series of such high-quality institutions that would fulfill all the needs of skilled manpower as India launched a process of industrial development.

In many ways, IIT Kharagpur in August 1951 heralded a “golden era” of institution building in India. The Bhabha Atomic Research Centre was established in 1954. As mentioned earlier, the second IIT came up in Mumbai in 1958. India eventually had five such IITs and the number remained five for a considerable time before India took a different economic trajectory in 1991. In between, the huge Bhakra Nangal and Hirakud dams were built along with investments in steel plants.

In 1961, the first IIM was established in Ahmedabad. The precursor to ISRO, which has successfully completed a moon mission just recently, was formed in 1962. When all these “temples of modernity” were sprouting, their founders could not possibly have imagined the unintended consequences.

The Indian Diaspora: A Model Success Story

No doubt, the IITs, the IIMs, and other institutions have increased manifold the talent and skill pool of India. But their biggest impact seems to have been imprinted on the global stage.

Any way one looks, one of the most fascinating and compelling success stories of this century has been the emergence of an extremely influential Indian diaspora in the United States (along with other countries).

IITs and IIMs have played a significant role in the emergence of the Indian diaspora as a “model success story”, though they do not have a monopoly over the process.

The authors have no doubt that Jawaharlal Nehru could not possibly have visualised that someone called Sunder Pichai, who passed out of IIT Kharagpur in 1993 would be heading Alphabet Inc, the parent company of Google and one of the most powerful information technology behemoths of this century.

No could he have visualised that someone called Arvind Krishna would graduate from IIT Kanpur and go on to become CEO of IBM?

Or that someone called Ajay Banga would pass out from IIM, Ahmedabad, and go on the head the World Bank after a successful stint as global CEO of Master Card. Indira Nooyi, who led PepsiCo for about 18 years, is an alumnus of IIM, Kolkata.

The IITs and IIMs have not enjoyed an unquestioned monopoly. The CEO of Microsoft Satya Nadella is a product of the Manipal group of institutions based in Karnataka. Shantanu Narayan, the CEO of Adobe passed out of Osmania College of Engineering in Telangana.


Changed Perceptions About India Among Global Investors

This did not happen overnight.

For decades, IITs and IIMs became the source of the “brain drain” as graduates went overseas (mostly the US) in search of greener pastures. Most never came back. It would be unfair to accuse them of lacking “patriotism” as India back then, steeped in inward-looking socialist economic policies, simply did not offer such brilliant youngsters any worthwhile opportunities.

Meanwhile, the “neglected” engineering colleges plodded on. They remained in the shadows of the glamorous IITs.

Yet, such is the enormity of talent in the county that these seemingly “obscure” colleges supplied scientists and engineers to institutions like ISRO. Hardly anyone inside the iconic hall in Bengaluru cheering the success of Chandrayan-3 on August 23 was an IIT product. Most have come from what used to be known as “regional” engineering colleges.

Nevertheless, what was a genuine brain drain in the 20th century became an asset in the 21st century as Sunder Pichai, Satya Nadella, Indira Nooyi and Ajay Banga started becoming corporate rock stars in the United States.

These are just a few names. Hundreds of such success stories have dramatically changed perceptions about India among global investors. Through a happy coincidence, the emergence of this successful diaspora happened after India radically altered its economic policies in 1991 and started the process of reintegration with the global economy. Since then, successive regimes have substantially increased the footprint of such institutions.

Till 1991, India had five IITs and three IIMs. Currently, there are 23 IITs and 20 IIMs in India. There can be no doubt that India is in the midst of a virtuous cycle of economic growth combined with highly skilled talent and ambitious entrepreneurs busy setting up start-ups that would one day join the one billion dollar club called Unicorns.

The authors have no interest whatsoever in getting into politically motivated debates over the contributions of Nehru and subsequent prime ministers in this critical field. While individual leaders do matter, nation-building is a long process that cannot be achieved without teamwork.


A New Beginning?

Perhaps the only sore point that sticks out while unravelling this history of “excellence” is the absence of the private sector in this exercise for so many decades. One myth perpetuated by people of a certain ideological bent of mind is that Indian entrepreneurs and industrialists have never invested in education and excellence the way their counterparts in the United States have.

That is simply not true.

It was the Tatas along with the Mysore royal family that established the Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru in 1909. JRD Tata helped Homi Bhabha set up the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in 1945. Bhabha went on to set up the BARC in 1954. The Sarabhais too have made legendary contributions to higher education, as has the Bajaj family. Lala Shriram set up the SRCC in 1926 and the Bilas set up BITs, Pilani (now an IIT) in 1964.

After that, the Indian private sector retreated into a kind of shell. Economic policies during the period 1950s to the 1980s actively discouraged entrepreneurship. It would be unfair to expect industrialists who spent half their time as supplicants in front of bureaucrats & ministers in Delhi a licence to think about setting up institutions of excellence.

But post 1991, Indian entrepreneurs have returned to the field with a vengeance and set up many institutions and universities in this century. Some of the more high-profile new institutions are Azim Premji University, Shiv Nadar University, Ashoka University, and Jindal University.

These new institutions are also filling a void that existed for decades in Indian academia: humanities. Barring economics, humanities used to be sneered at and considered to be the last refuge of the has-been who had failed to get into engineering and medical colleges.

That is changing now. And for the better. That signals yet another new beginning.

(Yashwant Deshmukh & Sutanu Guru work with CVoter Foundation. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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